Wild fire destroys 60 homes, sawmill near Kamloops, B.C.; 7,500 evacuated


KAMLOOPS, B.C. (CP) - A massive wildfire that prompted the B.C. government to declare a state of emergency in the Thompson-Nicola district Friday destroyed dozens of homes in the community of Barriere, emergency officials said Friday night.

Bob Buglsag of the provincial emergency program said at least 60 homes and a sawmill had been destroyed.

A tow truck driver still in Barriere on Friday night said he wasn't sure how many homes had been destroyed, although he knew the community's small downtown area was unscathed.

"I don't think we've lost that many homes yet, that I'm aware of, anyway," said Bill Kershaw, a Barriere resident, who said his trucks might be used to help transport fire crews.

From where he was standing, Kershaw said he could see the fire burning trees a few hundred metres up the hillside, moving away from his home, and clouding the sky above the community with ash and red-tinged smoke.

"I've never been in a war zone but that's what it reminds you of," he said, describing how earlier in the day he had watched heavily-laden cars exit the area.

"Every car going by is loaded down with furniture and snowmobiles," he said, explaining that the area was deserted, save for emergency crews.

Residents were shepherded to Kamloops, along with people from neighbouring McLure and its surrounding area, where the estimated 40-square-kilometre fire broke out Wednesday.

Vancouver radio station CKNW said by Friday evening, a total of 7,500 people in central British Columbia had been forced from their homes.

Also on Friday, a new fire burning on a mountain visible from downtown Kamloops forced people living in several nearby residential areas, including the suburb of Rayleigh, to flee.

As the fire jumped a highway and inched perilously close to the subdivision, several hundred Rayleigh residents were left no option but to be ferried across the North Thompson River by Department of Fisheries and Oceans boats, said Cpl. Mike Stewart of Kamloops RCMP.

"Most people in Kamloops can see this fire," said Glen Plummer, a spokesman for the provincial emergency program. Fire information officials said the blaze seemed to be burning away from Kamloops by Friday night.

Earlier Friday, Premier Gordon Campbell said the state of emergency was aimed at helping crews fighting fires and to ensure a co-ordinated response to evacuating areas threatened by the expanding wildfire.

"This is the worst situation we've had and the driest circumstances that we've measured in the last 50 years," said Campbell in an interview. "In all likelihood, British Columbians have never lived through a drier forest situation than we are living through this summer."

Firefighters had to be pulled back from the Barriere-McLure blaze due to the erratic and volatile nature of the inferno, said Campbell.

The McLure-Barriere fire is one of 328 active fires in British Columbia. It's believed 171 were caused by people and the rest by lightning.

A total of 280 square kilometres have been burned by major blazes so far and the effort to combat them involves about 1,800 firefighters and costs about $2.5 million per day.

"By declaring a state of emergency in the Thompson-Nicola, we will be able to deploy resources quickly and effectively where they are needed to support evacuations, fight fires and protect public safety," Campbell said.

The premier said fire crews were also coming in from other provinces and the United States to help fight the fires.

British Columbia and neighbouring Alberta are the worst hit in what is turning out to be a scorching fire season.

In Alberta, fire crews were bracing for wind shifts that could fan the 140-square-kilometre Lost Creek blaze in southwest Alberta, four kilometres from the town of Blairmore.

More than 800 firefighters, nine water bombers, 21 helicopters, 34 bulldozers and 20 water trucks worked to try and contain the out of control blaze.

About 100 people from the mining town of Hillcrest have been out of their homes since Sunday. About 2,700 residents in the Rocky Mountain region were still on alert to evacuate quickly if necessary.

In Ontario, major blazes that had threatened communities in the northern part of the province have been brought under control, said fire intelligence officer John Terpstra.

Nova Scotia officials were keeping a watch because of hot, dry conditions but no fires had been reported Friday.

Some Barriere residents didn't wait for the official evacuation order.

"I'm just trying to get my kids out the door," said Cindy Andrews on Friday morning. "This (fire) is unbelievable, it seems to be coming quite quickly."

Barriere resident Donald Campbell said the community's streets were choked with smoke.

"I got my razor and my toothbrush and that's all I'm taking. I travel light," Campbell said. "Oh and my cigarettes too."

B.C. Forest Service spokesman Steve Bachop said power was out in and around McLure, the Yellowhead Highway was shut down, and the CN Railway line had been closed.

B.C. Hydro spokesman Stephen Bruyneel added that at least 7,500 homes between Barriere and the Alberta border had lost power.

Hot weather and variable winds gusting to 30 kilometres per hour also continued to challenge crews battling British Columbia's largest wildfire, a 110-square-kilometre inferno burning northeast of Chilko Lake on Friday.

The Cariboo-region blaze had been 60 per cent contained on Thursday, but winds fanned the flames east into nearby Nuntsi Provincial Park.

The Canadian Press, 2003

08/2/2003 0:21 EST